Publishers Weekly | Love and Death in Israel | June 22, 2007
Rutu Modan in Publishers Weekly
Rutu Modan is an award-winning Israeli cartoonist best known to North American readers for her work with Actus Tragicus, an Israeli comics collective that has had several collections published in the U.S. by Top Shelf. Now she has created her first full-length graphic novel, Exit Wounds, out in June from Drawn & Quarterly.
It's the story of Koby, a Tel Aviv cab driver trying to find out if his estranged and suddenly missing father was the victim of a suicide bombing. In his search for clues to his father's disappearance, Koby meets Numi, a young female Israeli soldier romantically involved with his father. Koby reluctantly teams up with her in an effort to find his father, and in portraying their search and budding relationship, Exit Wounds surveys the shifting nature of personal identity, love and romantic betrayal against the vividly portrayed backdrop of Israeli daily life.
Modan lives in Yorkshire, England, with her husband and two children. In an interview with PWCW she discussed her jump from writing short works to creating a full-length graphic novel, the creation of Exit Wounds and the new online comics strip she is creating for the New York Times.
PW Comics Week: How did you first get interested in comics in Israel, and later in creating them?
Rutu Modan: When I grew up, there were almost no comics available in Israel. For some reason, comics were never successful in this country, so I couldn't be picky. There was one strip in a kids' magazine, encouraging kids to drink milk, which I read regularly, and in my dentist's waiting room I used to read old translated Popeye comics. I can honestly say that I started making comics before I started reading them. Inventing stories and drawing them is something that I did naturally since I was four years old. In my teens, there were already a few active Israeli cartoonists and even two or three comics artists doing mostly political stuff, which I did not understand, but felt the power of the medium anyhow.
By then I was already exposed to imported material (which was also not popular in Israel and very hard to find) such as Superman, etc., but I did not find it interesting—it was "boy stuff." It was only in art school during the late '80s that I saw [Art Spiegelman and Francois Mouly's comics anthology] RAW Magazine for the first time and it was like—boom!—I fell in love with this medium, deciding this is what I want to do in my life.
PWCW: Has the story idea for Exit Wounds been in your head for a while or was it something you came up with after Drawn & Quarterly contacted you?
RM: I was self-publishing my comics for years, so I always limited my comics to short novellas that I could afford producing. When I got the offer to create a book for Drawn & Quarterly, I was terrified at first by the fact that I needed to write a long story, a real novel. I searched for a story for a few months, actually, before starting to write it.
There is a great difference between a short novella and a long one, not just in length but also in form. The short story is based on one strong idea, usually using some kind of a punch line. In a novel the main thing is creating the protagonists, and following whatever happens to them.
PWCW: Are parts of Exit Wounds based on your own life?
RM: Not really parts, but I did use my life experiences or anecdotes, and based characters on people I know. For example, Numi. the girl, and her relationship with her mother are based on a friend I had in high school. Her mother was, like Numi's mother, a model who married a millionaire. Their daughter, my friend, turned out to look like her unattractive dad. The mother couldn't stand it. She made my friend's life miserable, made her go through plastic surgery at age 16 and forced her to marry her first boyfriend by convincing her that no other man would be interested in her since she was ugly. Her mother used to call her "Cinderella"—the Hebrew version of the name means "Dirty Girl." Numi is not at all like this girl, but I stole part of my friend's history to create Numi.
PWCW: Was your goal with this graphic novel to send a message about life in Israel or just to tell a story plain and simple?
RM: Samuel Goldwin once said, "If you have a message, send a telegram." As a reader I don't like books with "a goal," so I did not want to write one. I wanted to tell a story and try to make it interesting. However, I could only describe what I know well—the Israeli reality—so in reading Exit Wounds, I hope the reader can understand a little, at least my point of view on Israel as well as on other subjects like family relations, love, etc.
PWCW: Was it taxing writing a story that dealt with suicide bombers or were you able to distance yourself from it a little?
RM: For me writing is the opposite of distancing. It is dealing with chaos and fears. Suicide bombers are only a particular instance of a much larger-scale, terrible phenomenon called Death. I have, unfortunately, experienced the loss of close people, and it always felt sudden and brutal, even if the death was expected for a long time. The truth we try to avoid is that we all are in constant danger of death; writing the story was, partly, dealing with this notion.
PWCW: Who do you draw upon as influences, from comics and from other fields?
RM: One of my greatest influences was a pile of cartoon softcovers my mother bought when she lived in the States as a student during the '60s. Through these books I was exposed to great American cartoonists like Jimmy Hatlo [They'll Do It Every Time], Charles Schulz [Peanuts] and Charles Addams [The Addams Family].
Later, I was influenced by European comics artists like Hergé [Tintin] and American alternative comics artists like Charles Burns, Art Spiegelman and Dan Clowes. Nonetheless, I get influenced by films and literature, for example, Hitchcock movies and authors like Natalia Ginzburg [Italy] and Haruki Murakami [Japan]. Art is another resource, and in general I try to be influenced by anything good I bump into.
PWCW: What is the status of Actus Tragicus?
RM: For the last couple of years each of us worked on separate projects, not necessarily comics—I made Exit Wounds, Yirmi Pinkus wrote a novel, Batia Kolton dedicated herself to picture books—but Actus as a group is still active. During this time we kept being involved in each other's projects. We are now working on a new anthology, which will be published in September. The theme is love. We'll publish it in Israel, but since it is going to be in English, it will be distributed in North America and Europe in 2008.
PWCW: Will you be doing more solo works such as Exit Wounds now?
RM: Exit Wounds was difficult but such fun to do that I really want to start a new graphic novel immediately. Actually, I have started research and will probably start writing the script in few months. Now I am working on an illustrated column that is going to be published monthly on the New York Times Web site.
PWCW: What is the column [called "Mixed Emotions" and running each Wednesday] going to be about?
RM: It is going to be a series of six columns, personal stories combined with illustrations and comics. The first one [online now] is about my first trip to New York City. I went there with my control-freak dad and with a secret agenda: trying to find this guy who dumped me and moved to the city.